Rugby league fans will know a certain adage. Call it what you will: an opportunity missed, a shot in the foot. You don’t need to hear the whole line again. Just know it happened again.
At this time of the year, heading into 2024, there was only one place it could happen: the United States of America – home of the NRL’s hotly-debated season opener experiment for the next five years.
Specifically, the state of Utah, where Roosters rep Spencer Leniu was sent for a coaching clinic with a local high school team during the recent promotional Vegas visit.
This fact alone would suggest a well-thought-out initiative had been launched, proving there was more to the Sin City venture than the gambling revenue factor the NRL has been much maligned for.
But there was one small problem: the team involved did not play rugby league, but another sport involving that dreaded ‘U’ word.
Once word got out that Spence had met with a rugby union team, the usual media suspects piled on and the NRL was ‘called out’, ‘under fire’, and worst of all ‘slammed’. An ‘embarrassing blunder’, 7NEWS called it. Union supporters got to lap up the controversy that came with it.
Welcome to the Fabulous Las Vegas ???? pic.twitter.com/ynEXQed1yN
— NRL (@NRL) December 12, 2023
The NRL could almost be forgiven for what has transpired. Union and league footprints occupy a small part of a massive American sports market and the two have not often been distinguished – even among the nation’s league clubs, it has occasionally simply been called “rugby”. This could just be a case of the two being confused during communications and not wholly the NRL’s fault. But if just one person at Rugby League Central had googled “Utah rugby league”, then a more suitable coaching clinic partner would have been found in the Beehive State.
Meet the Utah Rugby League Association (URLA), a young organisation that has already made significant progress in establishing the game around the Salt Lake City area. It has ties with the Hopoate family, after whom its main competition is named, and its teams have also played alongside clubs in California and the south-east states.
Not only that, but a growing junior system in the state – the Utah Junior Rugby League – is the only one of its kind in the country, and was the perfect opportunity the NRL squandered to work with America’s next generation of rugby league potential.
Once alerted to where the NRL’s coaching clinic had gone, the URLA quickly took to social media to vent its frustration.
“Disappointed with the NRL coming to Salt Lake City and running a clinic with a rugby union club,” it said on Instagram. “Interested to know what he taught them.
“We have four youth teams here in SLC that are playing in our winter 9s tournament right now but NRL rather go to a union club and not the youth rugby league teams!”
On X, the URLA even threatened to withdraw 13 teams it planned to send to a Nines tournament – also part of the NRL’s Vegas bundle in 2024.
Plenty of noise was made and it quickly garnered attention – many league fans joined the outcry, although the hardline stance drew some criticism. Within days, the URLA provided another update.
“We are glad that the NRL noticed our concerns and reached out directly to URLA.
“We are both putting this behind us and moving forward working together, shoulder to shoulder to build the great game of rugby league here in Utah.”
Amends have been made and all appears to have ended well. But the fact that this unfolded in the first place is indicative of a deeper running issue in the US league scene, that has frustrated its efforts to grow: not everyone is on the same page.
It’s a situation that has gone on since 2021 at the latest. At the time, the USA Rugby League (USARL) competition was around ten teams strong, although all of them lined the eastern coast from Boston down to Tampa. Additionally, a New York team’s planned entry into the British RFL professional system was up in the air alongside Ottawa, after the Toronto Wolfpack had been kicked out of their first Super League season.
Then the North American Rugby League (NARL) burst onto the scene – a fully professional competition aimed at bringing the US game to the next level. 14 teams were announced, including the Wolfpack and other RFL hopefuls, several USARL clubs, and several more pulled out of thin air and planted in Washington, Austin, and the West Coast. It was ambitious, and 2021 proved the worst time for ambition as the reality of the ongoing pandemic – and the USARL’s disapproval – set in.
As time went on and launch date upon launch date passed with radio silence, the NARL collapsed into a shadow of its lofty ideals. Most of its new franchise attempts disappeared. Ottawa moved to Cornwall under a new identity to pursue the RFL. Other clubs withdrew over time until it was clear that the dream was over.
Since this disaster, the USARL has been forced to regroup, while other non-aligned and breakaway entities formed and tried to go their own way. The west coast “Championship Rugby League” and the Carolina Lightning are among those that popped up, earnt some fanfare, then faded into silence again.
Other clubs, however, have persisted in Cleveland and the Washington DC Cavalry, and 2023 has overall been a positive year for the American game. The Wolfpack are back on steady ground, while north-eastern clubs have launched Rugby League United. The Pacific Coast Rugby League (with whom the URLA is affiliated) reached an agreement with the USARL and the two ran a full competition with teams from the south-west and south-east corners of the US.
To cap off the year, the USARL has also announced the election of a new board (overseen by the International Rugby League) to signify a new era in January 2024. Also confirmed are six member clubs, with more expected to join.
It’s likely no coincidence that this is happening shortly ahead of March’s NRL Vegas openers. A United States rugby league body that is undeniably united can facilitate effective communication and ensure the existing rugby league structures are properly supported.
With a five-year plan in place for the initiative, ample opportunity exists to not just make up for recent mistakes but push American rugby league in the right direction.
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With the help of the local scene, the NRL could chase all kinds of success in the wild west.